The afternoon sky had turned slate gray — promising snow, or at least a freezing night. Alex and the team stayed low, watching, on the outskirts of the town, breathing slowly through their noses. This wouldn’t hide the heat bloom if someone had a thermal scope, but it would cut down on the small ghosts of steam that escaped into the air from hot, humid breaths.

Khamid was kept at the rear; his puffing gasps made him look like a chain smoker.

Alex ran his gaze over the squat buildings. Even the Chechen capital, Grozny, had few that were over four storeys, and those were all decades old. Farther out in the countryside, many of the small houses and farms had been there for over a century or two.

But here, the buildings, the streets — even the trees were all new. He knew why; he knew the town’s brutal history. They’d done their homework on the man they were sent to retrieve.

The original town had been burnt from the map, then rebuilt — a new wound plaster over an ugly scar — but still, something was wrong. Alex was reminded of those small towns built during the 1950s in the Nevada Desert, as testing sites for atomic bombs. Brand spanking new, and yet unlived in.

Staying low, Alex made his way to Bronson, who was acting as Khamid’s guardian and keeper.

‘Looks empty. There should be people around — something. What do you think, Dr. Khamid?’

Khamid nodded grimly. ‘Yes, yes. Katyr-Yurt should have a population of nearly five hundred — mainly young families. I was here only a few days ago and —’

‘Did you see anyone when you placed the package, Doctor?’ Alex leaned toward him.

Khamid looked up and his mouth worked for a few seconds before he spoke. ‘I, I think… it was very late, so maybe…’ He stopped and looked around, confused.

Bronson grunted. ‘Forget it; let’s get the package and fall back to our extraction point. We need a precise description, Dr. Khamid — I don’t want my team coming back with someone’s goddamn lunch box.’

Khamid nodded and made a shape with his hands. ‘The disk itself is beautiful; only the size of a large coin, but glows even in strong light. We believe it is at least one hundred thousand years old, of extraterrestrial —’

Bronson cut him off. ‘The case, Doctor. Describe the case.’

‘Yes, of course. It is a ceramic-coated lead canister about eight inches by six. Be careful: it’s heavy, over a hundred pounds, and I have no idea if the lead is really sufficient shielding.’

Bronson shook his head. ‘Great. Potentially lethal, and we’ll be carrying this thing for hours.’

Kolchek slapped his forehead. ‘Shit, I just knew I should have saved some of my sperm back home.’ He winked at Stozer.

Stozer snorted. ‘They can get plenty of your junk off the magazine stack under your bed, asshole.’

‘Cut it out.’ Bronson leaned in close to the Chechen scientist. ‘Now, where is it exactly?’

Khamid pointed down the main road. ‘Second on the left, Surkhaiki Street, number fifteen… where my mother’s house used to be.’

‘Seriously?’ Stozer shot him a disbelieving glare.

Khamid shrugged. ‘They think I’m dead, so I am invisible to them. . hopefully. It’s under the front steps, wrapped in a towel. Be careful with it, and make sure you do not open it under any circumstances.’

Bronson looked briefly at his watch, then up at the sky. ‘It’ll be dark soon. Hunter, I want you to take Johnson, Stozer and Kolchek in on recovery. Bruda will trail you for backup.’ He nodded at the AA12 rotating machine gun in Bruda’s arms. ‘If we hear that bad boy come into play, we’ll know we’ve got a war on our hands. As soon as the package is secured, I’ll call in the evac. chopper — we’ll then have one hour to make it to a clear and secure zone for rendezvous. If we miss our bus, we walk home.’

Bronson looked slowly along the line of faces. There were no questions. ‘Okay people, a few minutes until go time, so kick back and recharge.’ He pulled out a small canteen. ‘Dr. Khamid, you and I are just going to sit it out and enjoy the action.’

Alex and the remaining HAWCs took up positions where they could watch the town, the forest, and Bronson for any further instructions. Kolchek also monitored a small radar imager, which bounced a signal over the surrounding landscape. The device could cover a mile in any direction, and about the same overhead — not much, but it would at least give them a heads-up if anyone got too near.

Alex sat back against a tree and pulled out his own canteen. Ten feet farther down the line, Sam Stozer was on her belly with a scope to her eye. She turned to look over her shoulder at him, and smiled when she saw him looking.

Kolchek dropped down beside him, and instead of his usual wisecracks he was silent for a moment.

‘You know, Hunter… You’re going to make it today.’

Alex turned to him, expecting some sort of punch line. He sipped from his canteen, then offered it to Kolchek. ‘Sure, it’s my lucky day — I’ve already been blown up and shot. That’s enough for one mission.’

Kolchek waved the drink away. ‘No buddy, I mean: I know you’ll make it today — I seen it in my mind.’ He chuckled softly and without mirth. ‘Not sure about me, though.’

‘Come on, pal; if anyone is going to walk outta here with a smile and a shoeshine, it’s you,’ Alex said.

Reaching into a pouch on his belt, Kolchek held out a small, folded square of paper. ‘Give this to Hammerson; he’ll know how to get it to my —’

Alex batted it away. ‘You’re shitting me. No way I’m taking that.’

Kolchek pushed it back at him. ‘For fuck’s sake, just… humor me. You can always give it back to me later, right?’

Alex hesitated, then snatched the paper from him. ‘Okay, but back home, the drinks are on you… for a week.’

Kolchek smiled. ‘Sure, drinks’ll be on me, buddy.’

Alex cast a glance at the sky: the lighter shades of gray had turned leaden now, and a cold, sharp breeze bit at his ears and nose. It was time.

‘Muscle up, people — it’s showtime. Bruda, stay at the tree line until we’re on the street, then keep one hundred feet behind us. Kolchek, Johnson and Stozer: on my mark. . Go!’

Alex started forward with Kolchek and Stozer at each shoulder, and Johnson close behind, in a simple, arrow-tip formation. Bruda crabbed along the tree line, keeping them in sight. He had the big gun set for semi-automatic and had pinned several of the double magazines to his belt for fast loading. The shotgun shells would come out fast and hard — each drum contained thirty-two twelve-gauge rounds. He would control his fire, but could get off a hundred rounds in under a minute. The thing kicked like hell, and would knock a normal man flat if he tried to open it up too quickly. But for a man like Bruda, who weighed in at about two-forty pounds, that wasn’t a problem.

The HAWCs went down the street low and fast, their skeletal, black Colt ACRs held out in front of them. As they neared the corner, Alex paused, his gaze roving along the line of dark windows, over the rooftops, then down the darkening street. There was no doubt about it now.

The town was deserted.


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